Wheedle – 2 years to make, 2 days to break

So what’s all this wheedling business then?

It appears that wheedle is the brain child of Wheedle Limited’s Managing Director Carl Rees. Back in 2010 he registered the domain wheedleme.co.nz and started planning the Wheedle Me project, as a direct competitor to Trade Me.

By the end of 2011 he’d partnered up with software developer Ranjith Sivaraman and found investment angles in both Patrick Barrow and Mainfreight founder Neil Graham. Together the four set up the Christchurch based company Wheedle Limited at the start of 2012, with the shares distributed to Graham (26%), Barrow (25%), Sivaraman (24.5%) and Rees (24.5%).

Two days after the company was founded, Wheedle began recruiting in Kochi, Southern India. First with a web developer role followed by a software engineer in April. June saw three more web developer roles advertised along with a software tester and a SQL Server DBA in July.

In September they advertised for a web developer team leader at the start of the month and a General Manager at the end of the month, with the General Manager’s initial task being to source and relocate to larger offices.

While the team was ramping up in India, marketing preparations were getting underway in New Zealand. A Twitter account was set up at the start of September, with the first tweet announcing that the Wheedle marketplace was on the way. On the 26th, Wheedle announced themselves to the nation and livened up their web site for registrations. Two hours later the site was down due to overloading, and it stayed down until the official launch on the 1st of October.

Technical problems plagued the launch on the 1st, with the web site failing to cope with the load and being taken down for maintenance. For those who did manage to grab a glimpse of the site, it became very evident that it was virtually a direct copy of Trade Me, minus most of the fees.

Regardless of the launch difficulties, Wheedle pressed on with a well-oiled marketing campaign, getting traction across the mainstream media. The next day, once people actually had a chance to use the site, several major security vulnerabilities emerged and Wheedle were forced to shut the site down indefinitely.

While all this calamity was going on, Wheedle were scrambling to find more staff back in India. They advertised for two database architects and two web developers on the 1st and 2nd of October respectively.

The company PR claims that Wheedle have up to 20 staff, with 10 in Christchurch and 10 in India. They claim the web site is hosting across 40 servers based in IBM’s new data centre in Auckland. They claim they have the technology edge over Trade Me. And the also claim they have a multi-million dollar war-chest full of cash to keep them afloat. But what they unfortunately can’t claim is that they have a web site that works.

There’s obviously a lot that needs to be done for Wheedle to save face in what has become a complete debacle.

What went wrong?

For a web site which was touting to compete with New Zealand’s premier e-commerce site, the launch has been nothing short of a disgrace.

The message currently displaying on the Wheedle website says that the site is down due to “unforeseen technical problems”. That says it all really, they didn’t think hard enough. And it’s not that they didn’t think hard enough at the technical level, they didn’t think hard enough pretty much on every level.

Domain Name doesn’t spell like it sounds

Let’s start with the domain name, Wheedle.co.nz. I can imagine what would have been a typical conversation over the last week:

There’s a new web site, they say it’s better than Trade Me

Cool, what’s it called?

Wheedle

Oh, how do you spell it?

Wheedle, with a silent ‘H’, is that really the best name they could come up with?

Didn’t secure similar domains

Now if you knew you’d picked a domain that people will spell wrong then you could counter that by buying up similar domains and redirecting them to your main domain. Whedle.co.nz, weedle.co.nz and wedle.co.nz all come to mind. All three domains were snapped up by other parties on the 26th of September following Wheedles launch announcement. Wheedle really missed the boat on that one.

Functional Design is a rip-off

The functional design is a direct rip-off of Trade Me. This has meant that the guys at Wheedle haven’t had to do any R&D and the site will be readily recognisable by Trade Me users. But in doing so they’ll forever be known as the rip-off site, when they could have offered a point of difference in the marketplace (beyond the price point).

Couldn’t handle Loads

Wheedle planned to start with a big splash, they knew with their full-on advertising campaign that they were going to attract a lot of interest. They’ve supposedly got access to 40 servers in a swanky new data centre and yet they still couldn’t handle the loads. It’s obvious that the number of servers wasn’t the problem, but how they were configured. This should have been identified during load testing (if any took place).

Massive Security Vulnerabilities

This is what has killed the site to date. Here are just a few of what have been reported:

Setting Reserve Price

Users could view an auction item, then go to an “edit price” page and change the reserve price, and then effectively buy the item for whatever price they wanted.

Plain Text Passwords

Many web sites email out a plain-text password if you’ve forgotten it, but for an e-commerce web site (where money’s being traded) it’s on the unprofessional side.

Mixed up Session States

Users reported that when logged in, if they refreshed a page they would sometimes be given another users login. This is likely due to the session states not being shared correctly across all the servers. This could have led to all sorts of things happening to your account.

SQL Injection

It was also alleged that the site was open to SQL Injection. This is where database commands can be executed via form inputs. A hacker’s wet dream.

Recruitment

There’s been a lot of discussion around the development team and that they’re from India. A lot of this discussion argues that we have better talent in New Zealand. The real problem is not that they’re in India, it’s that there’s too much inexperience in the mix.

Of the jobs Wheedle advertised up until September they had a minimum experience requirement of 3 years for five of the placements and 5 years for only two of the placements. They got the mix wrong and they know it because the four jobs advertised in October all require 5 years minimum experience.

That’s an expensive mistake, now they need to try and reset the team culture and they’ll likely be forever working on a shoddy codebase.

Can it be saved?

The Wheedle web site was two years in the making, two days in the breaking. All the money spent on advertising to date has been offset by a loss of trust. The state it was in, the site was simply not safe to use.

There is absolutely a space in the market for a strong Trade Me competitor. Trade Me itself has stagnated (although they’ve done some great work on sister site travelbug.co.nz) and the competition would re-invigorate the market.

A Trade Me rip off is never going to be a true competitor though, and if Wheedle want to survive then they need to find a point of difference beyond the price point.

To survive Wheedle also need to build a revenue stream.

Based on the job adverts over in India, they’re paying their development staff about one third of the New Zealand equivalent (General Manager’s getting up to $NZ40k, senior web developer up to $NZ30k and DBA up to $24k). I’d estimate annual staff expenditure at around $250k in India. Include other operating costs, couple that with New Zealand staff (they claim they have 10), data centre costs, director’s fees and a massive advertising budget and I’d say the multi-million dollar war-chest will be lucky to see them into 2014.

Wheedle may have lower overheads than Trade Me, but in giving away free listings until the end of November they’ll also forgo any significant revenue stream until well into next year.

It’s an absolute shame that so much money has been poured in to this ill-thought out venture. They’ve identified an opportunity, but at the same time they’ve brought the wrong product to the market. There’s only one way this can end folks, Wheedle will die a slow and agonising death.

A brief history of Wheedle

2-Oct-12Advertised for Senior Asp.net Developer (x2)
2-Oct-12Wheedle website shut down for comprehensive audit
2-Oct-12Wheedle website security vulnerabilities discovered
1-Oct-12Advertised for Senior MS SQL Database Architect (x2)
1-Oct-12Wheedle website official launch, down for maintenance
26-Sep-122 hours later, Wheedle website down due to overloading
26-Sep-12Wheedle website online at lunch, open for registrations
26-Sep-12Wheedle announces launch in media
24-Sep-12Advertised for General Manager
10-Sep-12@WheedleNZ’s first tweet introduces wheedle.co.nz
4-Sep-12Advertised for Team Leader – Web Development
24-Jul-12Advertised for Senior SQL DBA
23-Jun-12Advertised for Senior Web Developer (x3)
4-Jun-12Advertised for Software Tester
25-Apr-12Advertised for Software Engineer Programmer
19-Jan-12Advertised for Senior Web Developer .Net
17-Jan-12Wheedle Limited company registered
2-Dec-11wheedle.co.nz domain registered
4-Jun-10wheedleme.co.nz domain registered
  • http://www.facebook.com/carlinarcher Carlin Archer

    Local Me has just (quietly) launched. It’s not really a competitor to Trade Me but offers some classified features: http://www.localme.co.nz

  • Mike

    They should have just looked into sella and tried to join with them. Its already a good stable cheap / free website. Just needs to be more well known